Mariko Tamaki takes on Harley Quinn in DC's newest YA graphic novel
Harley Quinn is going to have a big 2020, with “Birds of Prey” hitting theaters early in the new year, and plenty of comics to support that debut. She has become what Deadpool is for Marvel, but the difference between those two characters ultimately is the depth you can go with a character like Quinn. Case in point, the latest entry in the young adult imprint from DC Comics, DC Icons, is all about the teenage version of the Cupid of Crime.
Written by Eisner and Caldecott award winner Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Steve Pugh, “Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass” is a coming-of-age story about everyday heroes dealing with making choices, consequences of your actions, justice, and – believe it or not – economic class warfare! This ain’t just a YA comic about a superheroine origin story, but equally about gentrification and social classes. Readers should keep in mind, this is non-canonical like all of the YA books DC is publishing, and this story is purely a standalone title.
Here is the official synopsis of the book via the publisher: Harleen is a tough, outspoken, rebellious kid who lives in a ramshackle apartment above a karaoke cabaret owned by a drag queen named MAMA. Ever since Harleen’s parents split, MAMA has been her only family. When the cabaret becomes the next victim in the wave of gentrification that’s taking over the neighborhood, Harleen gets mad. When Harleen decides to turn her anger into action, she is faced with two choices: join Ivy, who’s campaigning to make the neighborhood a better place to live, or join The Joker, who plans to take down Gotham one corporation at a time.
Being that this is a non-canonical story about Harley like all of the DC Icons books, Tamaki gets to take some liberties that make this version of Harley her own. This iteration is not a crazy violence-obsessed character with one liners, but is more of an awkward teen with a very unique and distinct personality. Imagine “the basket-case” archetype from a certain 80’s movie we all know, combined with being a socially inept class clown, and that is our Harley in “Breaking Glass”. Likewise, Ivy and her other classmates are nothing like their traditional comic counterparts, and are much more real-life interpretations of them. Throwing out all the superheroics adds gravity to the situation, and puts it into a perspective that would otherwise be filled with death-defying things befitting your average book. Instead, this graphic novel treats this as if it was part of everyday reality, and it absolutely feels like something you could see actually happening.
Tamaki is a master of her craft, and it seemed like she had a lot of fun building this world and the characters who inhabit it. Being liberated from DC continuity afforded her a special opportunity to do whatever she wanted with Harley, and as a comic fan, I enjoyed the new world that was created. The artwork of Steve Pugh is a perfect pairing, whose style is very photo-realistic and dynamic. Pugh uses a limited color palette from chapter to chapter, making for some very striking visuals when combined with the layouts of his panels.
One of the things I liked least about the book was The Joker character. It was interesting seeing the character pop up, but I was not too keen into his look at all. I also didn’t like the predictable twist of who this character was, and what they ultimately brought to the story. You can’t have a Harley Quinn tale without Mister J, but it wasn’t my favorite handling of this psycho. Maybe I am just jaded from so many iterations of him lately in comics and movies, as this year has had several versions of him in both of those formats. Ultimately, this Joker does serve a purpose that can’t be understated, and is the perfect antagonist to this Harley – I suppose I am just suffering from Joker fatigue. If you are a fan of this twisted duo, though, you will not be disappointed and likely enjoy this take on their relationship more than this reader did.
The core of this graphic novel is about the idea of justice, and the consequences of your actions. It’s a real-life take on “With great power comes great responsibility,” seen through the eyes of a teenager. The book is all about the impact of making certain choices, and how that change the course of the rest of your life. It’s an important lesson that Tamaki handles excellently for this audience. Despite being a comic about a character who is normally inane and wacky, “Breaking Glass” tackles a subject teens deal with daily in a mature way. There is no talking down to the audience here, and the realism brought to the story makes what happens in it even more affecting to a reader. I wasn’t sure where this story was going to go at first, and the twists and turns it takes (outside of Puddin’) had me very invested. It’s an impressive story that inspires a lot of discussion, for adult and YA readers alike.
I wonder if Tamaki had planned for a sequel with this book, because it’s one of the few Icons books that easily could have one and practically sets itself up for that. That is part of the charm of this book though, and how the ending does not feel like a concrete end. Just like the choices one makes in life, the consequences and actions affect tomorrow and the tomorrows after that. “Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass” addresses that in a manner that offers redemption for a character, and also some unfinished business that readers will have to fill in the blanks with later. It’s a ride that I liked being on, and this is among the strongest entries in the Icons series so far. Definitely worth picking up, and absolutely worth not overlooking if you are a Harley Quinn fan!